Cool Shade, Bright Horizons and Plenty of Room to Roam at Roan Mountain
There’s a piece of arboreal paradise perched high up in Northeast Tennessee that offers a seductive respite from sweltering southern lowlands and broiling urban blacktop.
Straddling the state line in Carter County, TN and Mitchell County, NC, Roan Mountain is among the mid-South’s most sought after heat-beating retreat destinations when the quicksilver rises past the point of persistent perspiration.
There’s seemingly no end here to tall trees casting deep shade that alluringly beckons heatwave-weary visitors fleeing summer’s searing glare.
Add to the serene forest scenes an enchanting freestone stream that rises and gathers and babbles forth from the mountainside folds before snaking through the heart of one of Tennessee’s most picturesque state parks and you have all the elements of an idyllic landscape.
Located in the supple foothills of the nearly 6,300-foot tall mountain and ensconced in the rugged wilds of the Cherokee National Forest, the 2,006-acre Roan Mountain State Park serves as a basecamp for scenic adventures and placidity-seeking excursions into an immense wooded wonderland.
A dozen miles of foot and bike paths loop and meander throughout the park, and the Doe River’s invigorating pools and riffles offer prime habitat for three species of trout -- in addition to affording visitors ample opportunities to splash off and rejuvenate after slogging the steep terrain.
Tennessee’s state park’s webpage describes RMSP as “one of the most striking and beautiful places in Tennessee,” and says it’s worthy of designation as “a bucket list destination for any outdoor enthusiast.”
Even though the park is situated 3,000 feet below the mountaintop, it was nonetheless -- until the establishment of nearby Rocky Fork State Park in 2015 -- the highest-elevation state park in Tennessee.
It’s not even necessary to depart the proverbial beaten path to enjoy and appreciate that RMSP is a top-tier attraction for inspiring awe.
The grounds and short trails around the lodging facilities, campgrounds and along the main park road are themselves worthy of wandering at leisurely pace. You'll gaze upon rhododendron-cloaked river-bottom timberlands and behold magnificent mountainside vistas within sight or short stroll from any point along the park’s main road.
“People come up here because of the remoteness,” said Park Manager Monica Johnson. “Our cabins don’t have TVs -- and you’re probably not going to get very good phone service up here, if at all. So if you are looking to unplug, this is the place.”
The experience of temporarily disconnecting from modern mass-communication gadgets brings with it an opportunity to reconnect with family and a sense of tranquility, said Johnson.
“Unlike some parks, where people are just walking around looking at their phones, here you’ll see people out and about actually talking to each other,” she said. “A lot of the reviews we read are from people who say that’s exactly why they came here.”
Roan Mountain State Park earns laurels from most anyone who’s spent time there -- provided they encountered some decent weather. Winters can be stark and forbidding, and spring and fall unpredictable. But summers are typically seductive beyond resistance. For many, one getaway to Roan Mountain turns into a regular and much-anticipated family tradition.
“Living in Charlotte, North Carolina is about the urban life, with traffic, concrete and excessive humidity,” said Anne Odendhal, an insurance professional and non-profit activist. “Escaping to Roan Mountain State Park is now a routine we look forward to. We love renting a cabin -- they’re clean and lovely -- where we are surrounded by fabulous nature everywhere, quietude, great walking trails, and the best weather in the humidity-ridden Eastern United States.”
Even just a walk around the man-made park infrastructure gives one a sense of communing with the woods.
“The cabins at Roan Mountain State Park are kind of unique in their setting,” said state naturalist Randy Hedgepath, who travels to parks across Tennessee leading guided hikes and educational programs. “Most of our state parks do have cabins in woods sitting around them, but very few have cabins nestled so nicely into the forest with a minimum of trees taken down to put them in there.”
“It is a real, wild experience to stay in a cabin at Roan Mountain,” he said. “It’s kind of like the cabins grew out of the forest like the trees did.”
History Happened Here
All of Northeast Tennessee is rich in history and heritage as well as beauty and ecological significance. And staff and volunteers at Roan Mountain State Park pride themselves on offering interpretive programs and exhibits that highlight the stories, events, evolutions, endeavors and culture of the past.
An interpretive center at the entrance of the park gives visitors an engrossing tour of park history from Pleistocene to pioneer days -- including discussions about the area's unique life forms and geology. Exhibits at the center provide insight into early mining ventures, farming and logging and life-on-the-land for early families that settled in the area.
Roan Mountain also played a role -- or served as a point of interest -- along the path of the American nation’s founding. Two hundred forty years ago, John Sevier and other legendary frontier Overmountain Men from East Tennessee, Western North Carolina and Southwest Virginia trekked an arduous path from Sycamore Shoals in Elizabethton over Roan Mountain and across other rugged Appalachians peaks and craggy valleys to attack and destroy British Forces in a daring and pivotal Revolutionary War engagement known as the Battle of Kings Mountain.
Down on the Farmstead
Another of RMSP’s feature attractions is the Miller Farmstead, which was built in the early 1900s and serves as a reminder of “the way folks used to live in these mountains.”
The Miller Farmstead was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2014 “for its local significance in Appalachian agricultural history and the history of settlement patterns in the Appalachian region.”
“The farmhouse and associated outbuildings reflect the patterns of use of the Appalachian lifestyle of subsistence farming in secluded mountainous regions from the early to mid-twentieth century and continues to feature many of their original materials and elements with minimal alterations,” according to the site’s NRHP entry. “From the early 1900s until the time the property was sold to the Smithdeal family in 1962 and then again in 1969 to the Roan Mountain State Park, the farmstead as a whole remained relatively unchanged as the mid-20th century decades gave way to mechanization and modern conveniences of agricultural practices. The field patterns, pasture areas and the apple orchard were worked in much the same ways they had been since they were planted-with horse and manual labor.”
Park Director Johnson said efforts are underway to make improvements to the Miller Farmstead experience for visitors -- like adding details that make it as compelling and “historically accurate” as possible. The plan is to refashion it into not just a place to observe a charming old farmhouse and well-cared-for outbuildings, but a “living museum,” featuring role-playing actors to give lessons and demonstrations about life in pre-modern Appalachia.
“Our goal is to make it into a working farmstead, so that when people visit there will be people working and tending to crops,” Johnson said. “We want it to be a place where people can be taken back in time to that time period.”
And nothing transports people back into the past like the traditional music of the region.
“The fiddle and banjo were mainstay Appalachian musical instruments, but vocals music was at its heart,” an interpretive center information panel explains to visitors. “Singing could be heard at church gatherings, dances, corn shucking, barn raisings and other community events. Many of the songs were ballads that have been traced back to their English, Scottish or Irish roots. Originating in the southern Appalachians, clogging and buck dancing often accompanied the music at family or community gatherings and can still be seen up these coves and hollers.”
RMSP often hosts musical events and lessons featuring folk dancing, songs and instrument-playing.
Bald is Beautiful
Roan Mountain is one of those places where the more you explore it the bigger it seems to get. That is especially true if you head up the road to the top of the mountain. There you will find not a single mountain peak, but rather a roughly 5-mile long ridge-summit known as a “massif.”
Along the highest portions of Roan Mountain are grassy, open-range “balds” that exhibit some of the most breathtaking scenery in the Eastern United States - especially in early summer when the spectacular natural gardens of Catawba rhododendron are in peak bloom.
Although not part of Roan Mountain State Park, well-maintained trails -- including the famed Appalachian Trail -- thread their way through the rolling highlands. AT through-hikers often report that Roan Mountain offers some of the most memorable scenery along the entire 2,190-mile odyssey.
“Grassy balds are unique Appalachian wonders, open meadows in the mountains where, ecologically, there should be trees,” a University of South Carolina researcher wrote in 2015. “It has been hypothesized that some of the balds originated more than ten thousand years ago and were kept open by the grazing of large herbivores such as the mastodon and the wooly mammoth. Over the course of earth’s history, environmental and anthropogenic factors have shaped, modified and maintained the balds.”
Tennessee state naturalist Hedgepath, who spent much of his career working at South Cumberland State Park, is quick to call the dramatic vista at that park’s renown Stone Door overlook as the “best view in the state of Tennessee.”
“That’s a personal thing,” he said. “I have ranger friends that argue with me and say, ‘No, no, the best view is the one in my park.’ But I am kind of partial to Stone Door as the most sweeping and panoramic view of the wilds of Tennessee.”
But Hedgepath also acknowledges that a convincing case can be made that the vanatges atop Roan Mountain can rival any other across Tennessee.
“The views on the top of Roan Mountain -- if you go up to the rhododendron gardens and walk through the balds -- that’s a whole other dimension of sweeping panorama there,” he said. “The views of the Cumberland Plateau will give you views of ten, maybe 20 miles. But at Roan Mountain you can see lots more than that -- scores of miles.”
Not to mention, said Hedgepath, a hiker along the top of Roan Mountain will encounter temperatures five to ten degrees cooler than in the valley below.
“Walking through the balds in summer is a welcome relief from the heat of the valleys,” he said.
A trip to Roan Mountain is all about getting back to nature, but it needn’t involve sacrificing good grub along the way.
In fact, in the town of Roan Mountain, just a 10 or 15 minute's drive from the state park, you will find a slew of locally owned restaurants that are certain to hit whatever spot you’re hankering for -- and they’re all easy to find along the town’s main drag.
Whether the object of your savage craving is succulent BBQ, savory pizza, tasty tacos or a bulky burger washed down with a glass of cold, craft beer, there’s a place along the main road in Roan that’s certain to be serving what’s required to satiate the raveges of hiker hunger.
Here’s a list of some of Roan Mountain’s appetizing eateries dishing up downhome fare just a short drive from the state park:
Bob’s Dairyland is a classic BBQ and burger joint that's been filling the bellies of longtime locals and Johnny-come-latelies alike for seven decades, making it one of the oldest restaurants in Carter County. In 2019 Bob's won a contest designating it the best eatery along the entire Appalachian Trail, which traverses a total of 14 states.
Highlander BBQ is where you want to go if you're in a mood to gobble up something tender and delicious that you probably didn't even know existed. If you're one of those misguided city-slickers still operating under the belief that country folks haven't yet taught pigs to fly, then we got news for: in Roan Mountain they're getting close. Don't believe it? Then plan a landing at this cozy cafe for a sample of the "pork wings" and then sit back while your elated taste buds go soaring to elevated new heights.
Two parlors in town are tossing pizza dough and piling on toppings for hungry visitors who've come to indulge in a slice of Doe River life. Smoky Mountain Bakers and Frank and Marty’s Pizza & Subs are each happy to serve you up a mouth-watering pie after you've worked up an appetite admiring the open skies atop Roan Mountain.
Good beer, great music and enticing chow gets pumped out at The Station at 19E Pub and Hostel just a short jog from the North Carolina state line and a few skips off the Appalachian Trail. And if you're looking for a place to lay down your head, kick off your boots and put up your feet, they've got soft beds in the bunkhouse for ragged-out outback ramblers. They even offer a shuttle service if you run out of steam and need a lift from the park or a nearby trailhead.